Sowing seeds

How one small garden is producing a big sense of community

A disused wedge of land on the edge of a carpark may not sound like the stuff of dreams, but for a small, industrious group of people from the outer east’s refugee community, it’s created an opportunity to preserve tradition and regain a sense of home.

When Eastland was redeveloped in 2015, the management team wondered what they might do with a small, awkwardly-shaped outdoor space on the property’s north-eastern border. When a partnership was sought with the local refugee support service, Migrant Information Centre (Eastern Melbourne) – aka MIC – in Box Hill, it was a case of one man’s surplus being an entire small community’s reward.

Established in 2015, the Eastland Multicultural Community Garden is now home to 32 individual garden plots, each of which have been placed into the green-thumbed hands of members of the region’s communities from Burma.

According to MIC’s CEO and manager, Jessica Bishop, the intention behind the garden was not just to provide community members with a place to grow their favourite vegetables, but to give them a sense of ownership, autonomy and community along with it. 

“We decided that it would be better to run it as a community-owned garden that was managed and run by the community members themselves” explains Bishop. “The MIC assisted a group of community members to set up the garden as its own incorporated association with its own management structure, and to establish the relevant rules and regulations around that” she says. 

That was in June 2015, and today the garden is a thriving sanctuary; providing a welcoming place for the communities to socialise, connect and to grow food for their families. 

“Many of the families have grown up in a rural or farming setting where growing their own food was part of life. In Australia, they are often unable to do so” Bishop explains. “The opportunity to have a plot where they could grow their own produce was a really exciting prospect. It means a lot to them. All the plots got snapped up straight away.”

And it’s not just fresh produce they go home with; community members are sharing skills, passing on traditions to their children, and establishing new friendships in the process.

“The great thing about the garden is that it also provides an opportunity to socialise and exchange produce. Plot holders often help each other out by watering each other's plots and sharing seeds and seedlings for the next season's crops. Having the garden helps the families in their settlement and gives them a real sense of belonging in Australia.” 

Plot holder and garden committee member, Wesley Bawia is originally from Chin state in Myanmar. He has settled in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne alongside approximately 3000 fellow Chin people and around 800 people from Karen state in Myanmar. 

Observing the father of three at the garden on a sunny Saturday morning, surrounded by a band of infectiously exuberant kids and diligent fellow gardeners, you get the sense that his title of ‘committee member’ at the community garden is a bit of an understatement. A more accurate description would need to list ‘mentor’, ‘interpreter’ and ‘unofficial cultural ambassador’ into his job title to do him justice.

While the political situation in Myanmar has changed in recent times, for many refugees the situation is not safe enough to return and they have no home to return to. During our conversations at the garden, it’s clear to see the enormous sense of gratitude that the community members feel for having found a safe haven in Australia – after many years living either in refugee camps or as illegal immigrants in other countries after fleeing Myanmar. 

For Wesley, the garden is a place to feel connected with his culture but to also feel a part of something bigger. “It’s a good opportunity to be with other Burmese people” he explains. “We are not all from the same language group but here we share ideas and talk to each other, we help each other” he says.  

When asked what life in Australia has meant for him, Wesley is full of appreciation – for the kindness of the Australian people and for the opportunity to bring up his children in a safe and peaceful place. And what of his dreams for the future? “I want to settle well in Melbourne. To feel “home.” To be a good resident of Australia, have a house and a decent job. That is my wish.”